The Challenge of Broken Characters

I’m working my way through character background stuff and that got me to thinking about something. Well, that and a conversation I had with a friend about a bad book we both tried to read. That something is how to make your characters likable and interesting (and yes, those are two different things) while maintaining a dark and bitter tone.

Now, there are as many answers to that question as there are writers. The easy answer is: “whatever works for your characters and your style”. But that answer is a facile dodge, so let’s get a bit more specific…

In Wrath & Tears, and in the coming story, I start with a protagonist who – in all honesty – could be pretty damned unlikable. He is a drug addict, a con artist and a thief. He also combines a sense of bitter resentment and anger with all the callow bravado that only a seventeen year old can manage.

Harder yet, Wrath was as much about Oz as (if not more than) Connor, and he started from an even worse place: he was just as much a drug addict and liar as Connor, but was also trapped in the life of a young male prostitute that is even more uncomfortable than stealing and scamming. It’s easier to not talk about things like that, but they do happen…and they are who Oz is.

How do you make those two kids likable? Lovable, even? As a practical matter of storytelling, the end of Wrath is completely dependent on liking the two boys. If you don’t feel for and sympathize with them, the end is meaningless. If you do care…well…if I cried writing it, you better damn well cry reading it!

To me the answer was to use a couple of different of tactics. The first was to show the misery and squalor of the boys’ lives honestly, but to contrast it with the bonds of trust and care they shared. The snapshots of the friendship and intimacy of their lives gave them (I hope) a certain charm, and a human-ness that any challenging character needs to succeed*.

*There are books I’ve liked with/about unpleasant characters, but also ones I couldn’t stand. No offense to the author, but I think Thomas Covenant is one of the worst and most unpleasant characters ever written…and one of the very few protagonists I have ever despised. Raskolnikov, on the other hand, just plain worked for me.

The other side of that coin was an intentional dissonance between the boys and their circumstances. They brought out the best in each other in the worst of circumstances, even if neither would ever admit it. Their lives were terrible, but they weren’t alone…and that was what truly mattered to them (hence the repetition of the theme that “alone is worse”).

Another note of dissonance I tried to show comes through Connor’s thoughts/comments about there being no such thing as sympathy, selflessness or charity. Thoughts that came even as he was the recipient of several such acts (from Marie and Vin to Bloody Mary to Fadi, among others). Even more, Connor himself performs several such acts…he just always has an inner excuse – some ersatz “reason” – to shade the act as self-interested. He would never admit to doing good for the sake of, well, doing good. Of course not…he pretty much assumes there is no such thing as good. Exploring that concept is, by the way, what the new story is for!

Now, in Wrath I was able to write Connor with a certain sense of naivety and innocence (in spite of the darkness of his life), but those qualities are not available to me in this next story. Connor has seen too much – has lived too much – to ever be those again. He is, honestly, starting from a vastly worse place in Silence, and has a much higher hill to climb to regain the charm and goodness that are who he really is…

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